Environmentalists fend off ‘anti-development’ slurs in Nepal

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  • Nepal has a political focus on large-scale infrastructure development, and projects such as dams and highways lack adequate safety measures, raising environmental concerns for years.
  • Despite international commitments and constitutional rights to a healthy environment, the Nepali government faces challenges in implementing effective environmental policies.
  • Conservationists who advocate for nature and sustainable development argue that protecting ecosystems is important for both the planet and people.
  • They also said that supporting nature does not mean opposing development, rejecting accusations from politicians that they are “anti-development”.

KATHMANDU — In February, river conservationists and tourism entrepreneurs gathered on the banks of the Trishuli River in central Nepal to voice concerns about a proposed hydropower project. They warned that proceeding with the project would destroy the river’s ecosystem and affect thousands of people who depend on it.

However, they stressed that while they do not support the 100-megawatt Super Trishuli hydropower project, they are not “anti-development” as some in power have portrayed it to be.

“I’m not against development, but I think it’s unfortunate that development dries up rivers,” said Meg Ale, president of the Nepal River Conservation Trust.

Similarly, in a February 16, 2024 program on the environmental impact of the proposed Nagmati dam near Kathmandu, Viraj Bhakta, then an opposition politician but recently appointed Minister of Youth and Sports, Mr. Shrestha also expressed a similar opinion. “Please don’t think that I am against development,” Shrestha said, highlighting the flaws in the dam concept.

After decades of conflict and peacebuilding, Nepal’s political landscape has shifted focus to large-scale infrastructure development. Influenced by the rapid development of neighboring India and China, Nepalis now desire similar progress within the Himalayas, often neglecting environmental considerations.

With numerous large-scale infrastructure projects underway or planned across the country, including highways, tunnels, cable cars, railways, river diversions, dams, airports and power lines, conservationists say environmental protection is essential. says.

Rhinoceros in a town near Chitwan National Park, Nepal.
Rhinoceros in a town near Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Image by sunriseOdyssey via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

In Nepal, where more than one-third of the country’s land is covered by forests, environmental protection measures are severely inadequate. The environmental impact assessment process is considered largely ineffective, with the ‘polluter pays’ principle often being abused. This allows infrastructure developers to avoid environmental damage without feeling guilty or remorseful by paying a fine after the fact.

“There is a feeling of ‘development anxiety’ within the government,” conservationist Shrawan Sharma said at a recent program discussing the environmental impact of a proposed dam near Kathmandu. Sharma said this fear often leads to overlooking sustainability and environmental impact.

This has led Nepali environmental activists to take a defensive stance. When they express concerns about the environment, they are quick to make clear that defending the environment is not the same as opposing development. One of the arguments often made by proponents of free development is that developed countries achieved their level of development because they prioritized the living standards of their people over the interests of nature and the environment. Their argument is that shackling Nepal to conservation and environmental protection requirements is preventing the country from realizing its people’s aspirations, and that sentiment is echoed in public statements by politicians from all walks of life. It is reflected.

KP Sharma Oli, a former prime minister and member of the ruling coalition, recently claimed that those who oppose the construction of a dam on the Bagmati river are anti-development and spreading misinformation. Similarly, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal himself has repeatedly stated that Nepal’s conservation laws and policies, especially those regarding forests, pose serious obstacles to development.

“This does not mean we need to follow the bad example set by developed countries, which have already left irreversible long-term effects,” said conservationist Vivek Raj Shrestha. “We have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Protecting the environment and ecosystems is important not only for the planet itself, but also for everyone on the planet, including the people of Nepal and local livelihoods. .”

Kaligandaki Hydroelectric Dam.
Kaligandaki Hydroelectric Dam. With numerous large-scale infrastructure projects underway or planned across the country, including highways, tunnels, cable cars, railways, river diversions, dams, airports and power lines, conservationists say environmental protection is essential. says. Image by Krish Dulal via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Other conservationists have also expressed that they feel unfairly placed on one side of the environment versus development debate, and that supporting one side does not necessarily mean opposing the other. Not so, they say. “We have no choice but to exploit forests. Even if we hate it, development projects will inevitably pass through forests,” says conservationist Saint-Jean of the Foundation for Small Mammal Conservation and Research. Mr Thapa said. “Our only recourse is to mitigate and minimize the impacts of the project, but that is not against development.”

The Government of Nepal affirmed its commitment to this goal at home and abroad. It has ratified various conventions and conventions, including the Rio Declaration, which requires states parties to strike a harmonious balance between development and the environment. Similarly, Nepal’s Constitution guarantees the right to a healthy environment as a fundamental right and emphasizes the importance of maintaining an appropriate balance between environmental conservation and development efforts.

But Shrestha said there was a lack of institutional memory about the international commitments the government itself had made over the years in the dam debate.

Sharma said listening to politicians sometimes makes him feel like he’s on the wrong side of the debate. “Sometimes when you are against the construction of the Nagmati dam, you feel that you shouldn’t be against it because maybe the dam will have a positive impact on the economy,” he said. “But we need to understand that someone has to speak up in support of nature and sustainable development.”

Banner image: Marsyangdi river in Nepal. Image by Sergey Ashmarin via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Abaya Raj Joshi I am Mongabay’s staff writer for Nepal.find him at 𝕏 @arj272.

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conservation, dam, development, environment, environmental action, environmental ethics, environmental law, environmental politics, governance, government, roads

Asia, Nepal, South Asia

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